The trials and tribulations of a Coeliac, or how we spent Sunday afternoon in some anxiety and discomfort

Largely tasteless, yet strangely more-ish. If you know us personally, you will probably be aware that Mrs Chrisparkle is a Coeliac. To the uninitiated, it means she must not eat anything containing gluten. Gluten is found in wheat products, so it’s a no-no to wheat flour, ordinary bread and pasta, many thickening agents, much in the way of convenience food, and loads of common or garden meals that you wouldn’t even think of. No worries, she can eat meat, fish, vegetables, rice, cheese, pulses and lots more. It’s been about ten years since she was diagnosed, and about five years since she last accidentally ate something containing gluten. Gluten free Granola. Scrummy.That normally happens abroad, when language confusion can cause misunderstandings and a glutenous ingredient gets unfortunately scoffed. The result? Anything from mild stomach cramps to fainting and violent nausea, usually around 24 hours later.

But fortunately, people are aware of the horrors of food allergies, and chefs and waiting staff know to take it seriously. We tend to eat out a lot at pubs and restaurants, and asking the right questions and choosing sensibly off the menu means a worry-free dining experience.

Cheese Kettle Chips - fabAlas, that was until last weekend. You may have read, dear reader, about our trip to the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday evening. Always an entertaining excursion, and it’s a thrill to be at the Royal Albert Hall, so we go the whole hog and enjoy a delicious meal in elegant surroundings at one of the Hall’s restaurants, pre-Prom. So it was that we went to the Elgar Room, and ordered our three course meals and wine.

Jimi HendrixIf I’m honest, although the surroundings were great, look – we even shared the table with Jimi Hendrix – the food wasn’t that special. It looked delightful and its textures were beguiling; but as far as taste was concerned, it didn’t register much. No matter; it was an enjoyable experience. For dessert I had the cheeseboard which was genuinely tasty. Mrs C had confirmed with the waiter what she could have, and it was some chocolate and orange moussey thing with honeycomb on top. Mid-dessert, she was explaining to me that it was in fact the tastiest of her three courses when she suddenly stopped and asked me if I would try a mouthful. “Is that not sponge?” was her worrying question. I tasted. “Definitely”, I said. “How on earth do they make gluten-free sponge?” she asked. Erring on the side of caution we called our waiter over again and asked him to confirm with the kitchen.

Gluten free organic pasta. It does taste different from ordinary pasta but it's still perfectly nice. A few minutes later and he returned, flustered and apologetic. Some of the dishes had changed a little recently, he explained. The chocolate and orange moussey thing never used to contain sponge, but now they’ve changed it, and now it does, and no one thought to update the record of ingredients and allergens. Massive apologies ensued, and a free dessert (the somewhat safer strawberries and cream); but it’s shocking that they took such little care with her food. It made Mrs C worry about everything else she had eaten. The cucumber soup, for example, certainly had some kind of thickening agent. Her heart sank. Would there be a reaction 24 hours later?

We were in London, let's do it, let's break the law...So the next day, we were really on guard when it came to ordering food in London. We’d stayed overnight as we were seeing another show on Sunday afternoon. It was 1pm and time for a Covent Garden lunch. We spied the welcoming looking Sussex Pub, occupying a commanding position on the corner of Long Acre and St Martin’s Lane. The tables outside looked inviting in the sunshine, and the menu looked full of nice grub. No indication on the menu as to what was gluten-free but one wouldn’t expect it, so armed with a couple of ideas for a starter and main course, I braved the food counter.

“I’d like to order some food please.”
“Certainly. What would you like?”
“Could you tell me first, are either the Nachos, or the Garlic and Lemon Chicken skewers gluten-free?”
“Ah, that’s a very hard question to answer. It is our policy not to guarantee the content of any of our meals.”
“Oh. Well can we not simply ask the chef, it’ll say on the box of nachos if it contains gluten or not?”
“We don’t guarantee what’s in our meals.”
“But can we not ask the chef though?”
“Well if you can’t say what’s in your meals, we can’t order them, can we?”
“OK” came the caring response (with a “wotever” type shrug).

At which point I upped and left, loudly saying how totally ridiculous such an attitude was, (to no one in particular.) I continued my angry remonstrations on the street, with the result that Mrs C had to quieten me down with a “shush dear it doesn’t matter”. But it does matter. Their menu specifically says to discuss any food allergens with the bar staff. Well if they won’t engage in ascertaining what allergens there might be in the food, what’s the ****ing point in that?? To be honest, I wasn’t looking for a “guarantee”, I’m not going to sue them, I just wanted an indication of the likely level of safety.

Fortunately we were able to repair to the sanity and coeliac heaven that is PJ’s Restaurant. We discovered this little gem quite a while ago. Not only do they have an excellent menu, they asterisk the items that are gluten-free.

Covent Garden“Would you like some bread?” asked the friendly Polish waitress. “Yes please” said I, tucking in. “No thank you” declined Mrs C. The waitress was straight in there. “Are you gluten-free?” “Yes!” said Mrs C. “I will get you some crackers” said the waitress. And sure enough, along came a gluten-free rice cracker. I really enjoyed my meal of salad, chicken and ice-cream, but much more pertinent was Mrs C’s experience. To start – Thai Fish Cakes, served with a lovely spicy dressing. I could tell from Mrs C’s rapturous expression that we were on to a winner. Then, Sea Bass in a Spring Roll. Spring Roll? Surely not? But yes, a gluten-free spring roll of epic proportions and of which I had a nibble and it was delicious. Finally, a Toblerone and meringue soufflé. Yes, it was as divine as it sounds. So you see, Royal Albert Hall and Sussex pub, with a little dedication and imagination, you too can provide a proper gluten-free meal.

So what of the gluten that was accidentally consumed on Saturday evening? Well, indeed, it worked its way through Mrs C’s system and by the interval of our afternoon show on Sunday, she felt nausea, giddiness, and an extremely uptight tummy. As a result she had to miss the second half of the show. Thanks, Royal Albert Hall Catering Department, for ruining our weekend. I’ve sent them an email detailing our misadventures with them. I’m yet to receive a response.

9 thoughts on “The trials and tribulations of a Coeliac, or how we spent Sunday afternoon in some anxiety and discomfort

  1. Poor Mrs. C 🙁 The attitude of the Sussex pub sucked big time and the carelessness of the Royal Albert Hall is unforgiveable when you understand the unpleasantness of the side-effects to a sufferer. I’m a vegetarian and sometimes have quite a limited choice on a menu, and can struggle even more abroad, but mine is a lifestyle choice and if I consume meat inadvertently there isn’t a nasty reaction some time later. Pass on my kind regards and best wishes to your good lady wife!

  2. Sorry your wife suffered. It’s just careless of them. If anything, you’d think the dessert should also be renamed if it’s been reformulated (putting ‘sponge’ in the title might help!). Do let us know what their response is – the coeliac community is always interested in incidents like this.

  3. Well I’m pleased to be able to report that I have had replies from the Head of Restaurants for “Rhubarb”, the company that has the catering contract for the Royal Albert Hall.

    I copy the most relevant part of her reply:

    “The issue with the dessert chosen by your wife is that when we first introduced the chocolate mousse, it was indeed gluten free, but we decided that it was too creamy and lacking in texture and so our Chef introduced the sponge to address this.

    When the new dish was served, we clearly failed to communicate the update on the ingredients to all our staff.

    I would like to reassure you that this has now been done and as a matter of course, we spot check the staff on their menu knowledge.

    We fully understand the importance of allergens in our food and have tables for our entire menu indicating which ingredients are contained in every dish.

    I wonder if you are returning to the Hall again soon, and hope that if you are, would accept a glass of Champagne, with our warmest compliments as a small apology for this instance.”

    Here are the more relevant parts of my reply:

    “Thank you also for the explanation as to how the mistake occurred. Your offer of complementary champagne is I’m sure kindly meant, but we would much prefer the absolute certainty of this kind of mistake not happening again. To this end, I would suggest the following:

    Amend the name of the dish and/or its description on the menu to make it clear that it includes sponge, as this will decrease the likelihood of its happening to someone else. Some people will not inform you of their gluten intolerance and just take a chance that the menu description will be complete and inclusive.

    Not only trust to the ingredients table and the menu knowledge of the waiting staff but ensure that if any food allergy/intolerance advice is sought from the waiter, that the waiter also verbally clarifies this with the chef, so that there is an additional safety stage in the process, and the chef can stop a dish going out if he realises there is a problem with its contents.

    Make sure that updating the ingredients table is an integral stage of introducing any new dishes or amending any current dishes.

    Do you think those steps are reasonable and possible?”

    And she replied:

    “Thank you again for your very helpful suggestions all of which are totally reasonable and practical.

    Following the incident, we have already made menu changes part of our integral daily briefing and training and will update the description on the menus.

    Please be assured that we do take food allergies very seriously and in fact have an external agency which supports the Kitchen and Front of house teams with the information. What occurred with the situation regarding [Mrs C] was a breakdown of communication, which we have re established.

    I do very much hope that you might consider visiting us again and perhaps would let me know personally if you do, so we can ensure you have an altogether more enjoyable experience.”

    To which I said:

    “Thank you for your email and your assurances. If we do return I will indeed let you know in advance.”

    And she said:

    “Thank you very much, we look forward to welcoming you back.”

    So there seems to be little doubt that a) they realise what they’ve done and they’re sorry and b) they have taken steps to prevent recurrence.

    However, as it stands at the moment, I think it’s fair to say that Mrs C is once bitten twice shy on this one. Maybe – maybe – we’ll go back next year, but only if we email this lady in advance and she acknowledges in advance the importance of our dietary requests.

    As for you, dear reader, I’ll leave it up to your judgment as to whether you’d trust eating there if you have dietary concerns.

  4. Hm. A bit unimpressed with the offer of a glass of champagne. A complimentary evening on the house would’ve been more in order. Remember with 2012 gluten-free legislation coming in, if you do return next year there will be stricter laws governing what they can and can’t describe as ‘gluten free’ – so I hope they’re promise that they take food sensitivities seriously is true!

    • I was a little disappointed with the champagne offer too. But I’m not after freebies, just wanted to see the situation improved. Now you’ve got me intrigued, as I don’t know anything about this new legislation. Can you point me towards a link with more information about it? Thanks, Chris.

  5. Thank you for the very interesting article. Poor Mrs C. What a terrible experience and you did well with the post at getting through to us just how frustrated you were. I am sure that all coeliacs can sympathise with this and have had similar experiences as you did with the dick head in the pub.

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